How to fit writing into a busy life (writing strategies, part two)

My last post here was all about strategies for keeping going with a novel, even when life gets in the way. But more generally, how does a writer fit the act of actual writing in when s/he has any of the following: family, day job, friends, day to day commitments, a life? [delete as appropriate]

What I talked about in my earlier post was developing the knack for making the most of every opportunity: journeys, waiting for meetings, lunchbreaks, etc. You can add the following to that list:

  • Getting up early. This is an approach I’ve used at various times. Right now it would be difficult to do: I start work at the day job at 7.30 in the morning, so to get any useful writing time before then I’d need to be getting up at around 5am, I reckon. In the past I’ve had spells of getting up at 6.30am, writing for a couple of hours and getting in to work for 9. It’s been very productive, but wasn’t sustainable for more than a few weeks at a time. It’s great when you need a burst of productivity and evenings and weekends just don’t allow that.
  • Grab an hour after work. If you finish work at 5.30pm, why not stay in the office until 6.30 and write for an hour? Or stop off at a coffee shop or a scenic parking place on the way home to write for an hour? Or grab that hour as soon as you get home? Then by 6.30 you still have the evening ahead of you. Really, if you did a long commute instead, you’d have less of an evening than this.
  • Carve out some time late at night – those midnight to 3am stretches. Lots of writers are at their best writing late, so why not give it a go? I chatted to one writer about this recently and this is his preferred way of working, but I’ve only rarely worked like this myself: it’s not my best time, and I do try to have a life, but when I’ve done it it’s worked well.
  • When you actually manage to get a good long writing day, make the most of it. When my partner was away for the weekend recently, I did exactly this. I had a good writing session in the morning, then took a break for lunch. Then another good session in the afternoon and I was well past my word-count target for the day. It would have been so easy to pour myself a glass of 25 year-old Linkwood and called it a day. Instead, I had something to eat and then sat down to write again. Any words I wrote during that session would be a bonus. In the end I added another 1500 words – almost as good as squeezing another writing day in.
  • One of the loveliest presents I’ve received was a long writing weekend: my partner and I went to a bed and breakfast in north Norfolk; I wrote for a few hours in the mornings and then we did holiday things for the afternoons and evenings. That’s such a chilled way to work and I was incredibly productive.

In a perfect world, when I’m writing first draft I like to write intensely: write every day until it’s finished, then fix it later (and believe me, it always needs a lot of fixing). I think my record is to write a complete novel draft in 16 days, although normally it takes much longer (and it took me several years to sell that particular novel).

Nowadays I don’t have the luxury of long blocks of writing time, so I have to compromise. One thing I’m toying with is trying to combine the intense approach with all the techniques above for my next novel.

Purely by coincidence I should be ready to start looking seriously at my next novel by November – National Novel-Writing Month. I’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before, but it fits in perfectly: do you think it’s possible for me to combine a day job, having a life, etc, with being as productive as a full-time writer and get that first draft down in a month? I’m not anal about getting it done in a month: I accept that 3,300 words a day for a 100k word novel is ambitious even for most full-time writers. I wouldn’t mind if it took a few days longer.

But… what do you think? Am I mad?

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About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

5 responses to “How to fit writing into a busy life (writing strategies, part two)

  • Graham Edwards

    I recognise a lot of the strategies on your list, Keith. The commute’s a good one. I wrote a novel over the course of a year in half-hour chunks while commuting between Nottingham and Leicester. Right now I’m using your ‘getting-up-early’ technique to squeeze in a modest 1,000 words each day before the day job (this only works for me in the summer). But when there’s a deadline looming, I find the ‘any-damn-minute-of-the-day-I-can-get’ approach is the only one that cuts the mustard!

  • Martin

    I find all methods — any method! — applicable depending on circumstances, and that the method changes.

    Before we had kids I’d write into the evening after work. For a while I’d get up early and write. I had a spell when I took Fridays off as a writing day. We once went on holiday to Norfolk — I took my laptop and got up at 6am every morning to try and do something on the novel I was working on at the time (The Destiny Mask). It didn’t work. I just looked bleary-eyed at the same paragraph for a week.

    Lesson learned.

    Personally I find writing — or doing *something* on the current project — every day (or almost every day) very important. If I’m reading a novel but don’t pick it up for a couple of days it goes stale on me. The same is true of writing one.

    I’m not sure the full day of writing would work for me — on my Fridays I really only used to produce as much as I did in a couple of hours in the evening — I just took all day about it. Although I did feel like “a writer” for one day a week. It’s also pretty luxurious, isn’t it? Hard work, yes, but hard work we choose.

    My aim is to make writing part of my working day, even if it’s only a couple of hours. As you say, writing takes time but we all need a life. What I’d like to be able to do is eight to nine hours of day job, plus a couple writing, all before 7pm. Achievable, I think. Then I can spend time with the kids, watch Le Tour and relax.

    On productivity, one of the biggest boosts to my output that I’ve found is my current hardware/software setup. I’ve got an iMac, a MacBook Pro, and an iPhone (yeah — I, Fanboy!). On these I use Scrivener, Simplenote, Notational Velocity and Writeroom. Simplenote is in the cloud: I have the Simplenote app on my phone, and Notational Velocity, which syncs with Simplenote, on both my Macs — anything I change on my phone or either Mac is (almost) instantaneously changed on the others. Writeroom is not really necessary but gives a nice full-screen environment for working on Notational Velocity notes, and I bought it years ago. My Scrivener file is kept in my Dropbox folder; Scrivener also syncs with Simplenote, so I can work on part of my current project *anywhere* at *any time*, and it all syncs.

    For example, I drafted this in Simplenote on my iPhone in bed, sipping JD, having seen your post on twitter and sending the link to Instapaper. I’m now re-drafting it in Notational Velocity on my iMac.

    With this setup I can work on my stuff — or at least load it into my head or remind myself what I’m supposed to be thinking about — whenever I have a few moments: in a queue; in the kitchen; sitting on the bog!

    I’m planning what I hope will be the next book to a greater level than anything I’ve written before, and this setup is certainly helping. And when it comes to writing proper, I hope to be able to run through it quickly. Careers aren’t made on a book every three years, right? Right.

    All this is horses for courses. No two writers will use the same method, and a particular method will only work when it’s relevant. The important thing is to be adaptable.

    25 year-old Linkwood sounds nice…

  • keithbrooke

    Definitely horses for courses – and some of the strategies I’ve listed don’t really work for me. Even the ones that do work… well, I preach better than I do! In reality, I’m struggling with it all right now, and trying different ways to keep the momentum going.

    One significant thing is that technology makes it easier for us to have access to our files wherever we are: I use cloud storage, my day-job work computers, my laptop at home, a netbook on the move, my phone… anything that helps me get back into it and keep things going.

    And yes, that Linkwood is superb!

  • Martin

    One thing I found a while ago when I was struggling with my book (which turned out to be crap and consequently shelved) was that having different projects on the go keeps the fire stoked. I did a radio adaptation of my story Deciduous Trees (in the Celebration anthology), which I really enjoyed. Swapping between that and the novel meant I kept writing even when the novel was being stubborn.

    I suspect you already have several irons in many fires, though…

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